Two photographs have been identified as outbuildings that could have served as housing for the enslaved workers of one of Guilford County’s largest enslavers, James Turner Morehead. Today, that location is Greensboro’s City Hall.
James Turner Morehead (1799-1875) may not be as well-known as his brother, the two-term North Carolina governor John Motley Morehead, but he made his own mark in history. Born in Rockingham County, Morehead attended the academy of Dr. David Caldwell before studying law at the University of North Carolina where he graduated in 1819. In 1830, he married Mary Teas Lindsay and their family expanded to include six children. Morehead served as a commissioner in Greensboro in 1832 and again from 1834-1835. He also held multiple terms as a member of the North Carolina State Senate (1835-36, 1838, 1840, 1842) and was appointed as a trustee of the University of North Carolina from 1836 to 1868. Morehead was elected to serve as a U.S. Congressman from 1851-1853. Throughout his life, he earned income as an attorney, through the operation of an ironworks, and as a planter.
In the 1860 Federal Slave Census, James Turner Morehead was documented to have enslaved 107 people in Guilford County. That number is twice the number of the second-highest population of enslaved, that being 53 workers held by John A. Gilmer. James Turner Morehead’s brother, as a point of comparison, enslaved 16 people at his home, Blandwood, which still stands just 1,000 feet southwest of the long-ago destroyed James Turner Morehead house located at the southwest corner of today’s Greene Street and February One Place (formerly Sycamore Street).
His property occupied a city block that no longer exists – originally bounded by Sycamore Street (now February One Place) to the north, Greene Street to the east, Washington Street to the south, and Ash Street to the west. In the twentieth century, his block was combined with others to create the super block on which the Governmental Plaza was completed in 1973. Early maps of Greensboro depict the wood frame house situated on the northern portions of the rectangular property facing Sycamore Street with an assemblage of buildings constructed of brick and wood to the south, just west of Greene Street.
Enslavement, sometimes envisioned as a rural occurrence due to portrayals in popular literature, was also experienced in cities, towns, and villages. There, enslaved workers were forced to provide food, cleaning, child-care, and building maintenance for wealthy families such as the Moreheads.
The two images are owned by the Greensboro History Museum, and archivist Elise Allison estimates that the photos were taken between 1900-1910. According to Allison’s research, the form of a nearby church suggests the photo was taken during the time frame of 1902-1919. The church, identified in Sanborn Insurance maps as the Baptist Church, was built in 1886-1887.
The brick structures in the photo feature certain characteristics that mark them as curious structures. The fact that they are constructed of brick – in a village in which most residences are constructed of wood – is notable. Another photo of “slave quarters of the Lindsay family” that was published by Ethel Stephens Arnett in her book Greensboro North Carolina, the County Seat of Guilford (1955) depicts a brick structure like the Morehead’s outbuildings. Perhaps their use – if kitchens or laundry – would require fireplaces that made them vulnerable to fires, and thus the use of brick. The buildings appear in the April 1896 Sanborn Insurance maps, both indicated with the letter “D” for “dwelling.”
At UNCG, archaeologist Dr. Linda Stine has taken note of these Morehead structures as well. The images are labeled “slave quarters” but it is not known where that evaluation originated. This mystery of this chapter of Greensboro’s history needs more study.
Detailed Sanborn maps created in March 1919, depict two of the brick Lindsay outbuildings still standing to the south of the old Lindsay residence, then brick veneered, but the structures were destroyed in the 1920s with a building boom along South Greene Street. In the 1960s, the entire superblock with the exception of the old Guilford County Courthouse was razed and replaced by the Governmental Plaza complex of county and municipal buildings.
Could the housing of enslaved workers have existed on the grounds of today’s Greensboro City Hall? More studies should be made.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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